“This is who we are.”
Cam Talbot wasn’t talking about the Edmonton Oilers being a .500 team — finally — for the first time since they lost Game 3 of the 2017-18 season. Or the fact they ended the game one point ahead of the Vancouver Canucks for 13th place in the West, even though the Canucks game against St. Louis was about to start on the West coast.
The Oilers goaltender was talking about a club that won its fourth straight game Saturday night, a decisive 4-1 win over Montreal that could have been more lopsided had Antti Niemi not been fabulous in the visitors’ net. Talbot was describing an Oilers club that rolled out four lines, bludgeoning Montreal’s defence into submission on the strength of three Leon Draisaitl assists, a goal and two points from Connor McDavid, and a decided edge in Grade A scoring chances over an inferior-looking opponent.
He was talking about an Oilers club left for dead by many that just might be alive after all, after a 10-5 run into the Christmas break.
“We could have folded our hand after we got down and everybody said we had no chance of making the playoffs and counted us out. But we still believed in this room,” said Talbot, who has won seven straight starts with a blistering .929 saves percentage over that span. “Obviously .500 isn’t where we wanted to be at this point, but it is a good place to start from after the break.
“It’s been a nice little run and we are feeling good with ourselves.”
If you just look at the standings, where Edmonton sits four points out of a wild-card spot but with five clubs to leapfrog, your skepticism may remain intact. However, hockey history is full of good teams that played badly for 20 games, and that skid turned out to be the aberration — rather than the entire 103-point season that occurred beforehand.
As they disperse for Christmas — firm in the knowledge that the X-rays on McDavid’s foot after that late blocked shot came back negative — these grown men may not believe in Santa anymore. But they certainly believe in their club in the present. The Oilers are 7-3 this month.
“We set a goal, and we got there before Christmas,” said Patrick Maroon, who was all around the net Saturday with six shots on Niemi. “We wanted to get to .500 and we got there. Now, the next thing is to keep stringing these wins together. We told ourselves we wanted to win December, and we’ve got two games left against Winnipeg and Chicago. We’re feeling a bit more confident. We’ve got our swagger, our identity.”
Draisaitl held a passing clinic Saturday, and he’s been dealing all month on his own line with Ryan Strome (one goal) and upstart Jujhar Khaira (1-1-2). McDavid is back to creating chances at his usual superstar pace, with 12 points this month despite being shut out three times.
The Oilers captain has 14 goals and 29 assists through 36 games — on pace for 98 points — and gave everyone a scare when he blocked Jeff Petry’s late blast with his left foot and limped off.
“His foot’s a little sore, but he’s in good spirits,” Oilers coach head coach Todd McLellan said. “A couple days (off) will help him, and I fully expect him to play in Winnipeg (on Wednesday).”
McDavid was scheduled to catch a flight home to Newmarket, Ont., after the game to spend Christmas with family, likely relishing the challenge of carrying this recently lost group into the playoffs for a second straight spring.
The Oilers will play 23 of their final 46 games against Pacific Division teams. The best way to catch up is to beat teams within the division.
If they can play .667 hockey, winning two out of every three games the rest of the way, they’ll have 97 points. That number qualified for the playoffs in either conference last season.
“I think it’s sustainable,” Strome said of the Oilers’ recent pace. “We’ve been coming to the rink every day with the right mindset and we’ve kind of found our game, it seems. Honestly, I don’t think many guys are talking about the big picture very much. It’s just every day. We all said it for 20 games, that we’ve got to find a groove, and I think we’ve found it.
“This is a ton of fun.”